A/N: Last chapter, guys! Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed. :)
Somewhere in the city, as the chaos begins to taper off, Gwen tries to wipe blood off of her face with her sleeve. It's already soaked; all she does is manage to smear it around.
Swearing under her breath, she's about to tear a strip from her shirt to do it—the battle may be all but over, but it's always better to be prepared, and if blood drips into her eyes at the wrong time she'll be in trouble—when a crumpled napkin is offered to her out of nowhere.
She takes it from stiff fingers and turns, a thank you on her lips, but it drowns in a sea of shock.
Brown eyes stare hopefully at her from an unnaturally pale face. This is impossible. She's dreaming, or she's dead already.
Part of Gwen worries that speaking will break the spell, pop the fragile soap bubble of whatever dream she's stumbled into. But a bigger part of her is practical and determined to get the worst over with quickly, so she speaks. It comes out far shakier than she would like.
"Lancelot?" she whispers.
A smile spreads across his face, and it's like watching the sun rise.
Will explains the rest to him when Em wakes up, stiff in a makeshift hospital bed. Because of course—he would manage to sleep through the end of the end of the world. Typical, really.
He learns that the boneys, for all their fury, were too few to fight off a combined force of rebellious zombies and very pissed-off humans. Their side took heavy losses, yeah, and they'll be patching up the damage for a long time to come, but when all was said and done the boneys were all killed outright or driven off. Em imagines they'll retreat back to the darkest corners of Heathrow, clawing at their faces and roaring at the walls and maybe wondering, somewhere in their hopeless minds, where it all went wrong. He doesn't envy them, but he can't quite pity them either. But then…
You can't blame me for my choices.
Maybe it's not his place either way.
Faced with overwhelming evidence that the deadwalkers were not only not quite as dead as they used to be, but also that they were damn handy to have around in a fight, the humans didn't immediately turn on the zombies after the boneys were gone. Apparently they've started setting up tents outside, both for shelter and for medical purposes. Em's been lingering in one such tent while a Dr. Gaius, to hear Will tell it, has been practically bursting with professional interest over his newly functioning internal organs.
"He's a…llllittle too…in—innn…"
Will's face screws up in concentration, but after a minute he makes a frustrated noise and Em interprets.
"Interested in me?"
Will gives him a little twist of a smile. Em is reminded of how well they always communicated without words back at Heathrow; he imagines they'll have plenty to talk about once Will gets the hang of speaking again.
"Back from the dead?"
Em twists around to see Arthur standing in the tent opening, two Styrofoam cups in hand.
"Looks like," he answers.
Will snorts. Em retaliates by jabbing him with an elbow. Apparently Arthur hadn't left his bedside until he was "empathetically informed" (translation: Gaius shouted and then threw him out) that Em was going to patch up just fine.
(And Em had absolutely not blushed upon hearing that bit of news. It's this newly beating heart of his; it has no idea what it's doing yet. It's just pumping blood into all sorts of inconvenient places and hoping everything works out. That's Em's story and he's sticking to it.)
Will takes Arthur's arrival as his cue to leave, getting up as stiffly as any old man and moving carefully towards the tent flap.
"Sssee….you," he mumbles as he leaves.
Arthur takes the abandoned seat next to the bed and hands Em one of the cups. Em accepts with a quiet thanks.
The silence stretches like a rubber band, quickly becoming awkward.
"So," Em says.
"So," Arthur replies. "You look better."
"Than a corpse? I'd like to think so."
Arthur raises his eyebrows. "Sounding better as well. I'm not used to hearing you talk without sounding like an inebriate."
"Very funny," Em says dryly, but his heart has gone to pounding again. Stupid thing.
Because it is different, talking like this instead of trying to communicate via slurring and various facial expressions. And it is lovely not letting Arthur dominate the conversation anymore. Being able to actually participate in verbal sparring is something Em doesn't think he'll ever take for granted.
"So…what now?" he asks.
Arthur's expression darkens. "With my father gone, I've been more or less running things," he says quietly. "Gwen's been a lifesaver; we've been up all hours trying to figure out how this integration thing is going to work. I'm not sure what I would've done without her."
Em likes Gwen. Em likes Gwen quite a lot, which is why when the words "I'm not surprised; you two seem good for each other" come spilling out of his mouth there is only sincerity in them. Really. He swears.
But Arthur looks far too amused, so Em knows he must've missed a step in subtlety somewhere.
"She found Lancelot, you know," he says.
Em blinks. "Who?"
"Lance. My friend, and her fiancé—turns out he wasn't dead after all. Well," Arthur corrects himself, grinning fit to burst. "Not permanently, anyway."
"That's brilliant," Em manages. "Really, that's fantastic. I'm happy for her."
"So am I. And in any case, Gwen isn't entirely my type."
Arthur looks very pleased with himself, which instantly makes Em suspicious.
"And what would that be?"
Arthur hmms thoughtfully. "Incapable of speech and therefore unable to argue with me constantly."
Em's throat feels dry. "Can't help you there, then."
"Ah. Well then, my second choice would be extremely brave."
"And incredibly loyal." Arthur pins him with his gaze, abruptly serious. "And not at all like a monster."
Forget dryness; now Em feels like he's tried to swallow a golf ball and it's got stuck halfway down his throat. He'd forgotten how ridiculous human anatomy was.
"Gwen checks all those boxes," he points out once he's got himself under control.
"So do you," Arthur answers, and kisses him before Em can think up another protest.
And, well. If Arthur's so determined to keep having the last word, then Em is willing to play along for the moment.
It's not easy, but then nobody expected it to be. Things are awkward at first for a variety of reasons, and a handful of fights break out, but that's to be expected when you throw former mortal enemies together and expect them to cohabitate. Arthur glares impressively at his brasher recruits and then starts training the more agile ex-zombies to make a point. Em has some very stern conversations with his fellows from the airport on the subject of not antagonizing the humans, because they're all human now. And slowly it's all starting to work out.
(Dred and Kara have become inseparable, which Em privately finds terrifying, but they're setting a good example for the rest so he leaves it alone.)
His own memories come back slowly, like long-lost friends drifting out of a heavy fog. They're still blurry and indistinct, but they're something. They're his. He clings tightest of all to the memory of a soft, dark-haired woman with a bright laugh, who carried the smell of herbs around with her.
He still doesn't remember his name, but it doesn't bother him anymore.
A year to the day after the boneys climbed over the walls and the dead came back to life, a year with no new attacks, and the wall around the city compound is torn down.
"Thank God that's over," Arthur groans after the fact, slouching in his seat and rubbing his temples. "I don't know why they insisted on having a speech. It's a wall. It no longer makes sense to keep maintaining said wall when we haven't needed it in ages. What else is there to say?"
"I'm pretty sure Gwaine just wanted an excuse to toast something," Em muses. "But I thought you did well."
He fiddles with the little lever and tips his seat back, admiring the way his dragon mobile catches the light and sends sparks of green and gold scattering across the plane's interior. They try to come out here when they can, when they have time, because there's still something oddly homey about it in spite of everything.
(On their first trip back to Heathrow, Em had fished Morgana's letter out from under his seat and passed it to Arthur.
"Don't ask me how I got this," he'd said, and left Arthur to draw his own conclusions. Left the plane entirely and waited out on the tarmac for…something. He wasn't sure what.
Arthur hadn't come out of the plane for a long time. When he had, his eyes had been red but his posture loose, as though a weight had been lifted.
They didn't talk about it. They probably never will, but something lightened in Arthur's eyes after that, and that's all Em needs to know.)
Homey or not, Em's been slowly moving his collection back to Arthur's mansion (which sounds incredibly posh and ridiculous, but there's a spare room in it for all of Em's shit, so he doesn't mock the extravagance too much). His favorite carved dragon figurine was the first to be migrated, and he donated one of figurines to Gwen and Lancelot (aka Security Guard Guy, only Em can't really call him that to his face without feeling awkward) at their wedding, and his dragon mug sits in Arthur's cupboard. He drinks tea out of it every morning.
He thinks he'll bring back the mobile last, and then it'll probably be time to let this place go. In the meantime, though, he's content to lay here while Arthur reads whatever book he's got now and they both decompress.
This week's find is massive, easily double the length of the novels Arthur usually picks up because he can talk military strategy and weapons for hours on end, but when it comes to books he has the attention span of a gnat. Em squints at the cover.
"The Once and Future King," he says aloud. "Bit big for you, isn't it? Words more than two syllables long?"
"I have a gun," Arthur informs him without looking up from the page. "And I'll have you know that this is a classic."
"Really." Em snatches the book out of Arthur's hands before he can protest and reads the jacket. "'The saga of King Arthur—' oh, seriously? You would pick up a book just because it has your name in it—'tutored by a sorcerer named—'"
Em chokes on the next word.
"Well?" Arthur sighs. "Are you finished mocking my choice of reading material for today?"
Em makes another garbled little noise. He hasn't had this much trouble speaking in a while.
Arthur frowns. "Em? Are you alright?"
Em looks at the book, then back to Arthur. Then back to the book.
"'A sorcerer named Merlin.' Merlin. You have got to be joking."
Em laughs. He can't help it. It's mad, all of it is mad, and Arthur's looking at him like he's seriously concerned for his mental health, but that's fine. He'll explain later.
They've got nothing but time.
I dream of dragons.
Pretty damn awesome dream, if you ask me.
Except this dragon seems to be more annoying than impressive; I get the feeling like you do in dreams, when things make perfect sense until you wake up and wonder what spectacular drugs could fuel images like that.
So this dragon and I aren't terribly friendly. That's a bit of a disappointment.
I leave him and start walking.
There is a witch with fire in her eyes. I walk faster.
There is a queen with a soft smile. She doesn't seem to dislike me, which might be a first in this dream, so I smile at her but I keep walking.
There is a king, and here is where I stop.
He's busy with something, bent over a table, head bowed to papers and maps and a red cape draped over his shoulders, but he looks up when I enter the room. He turns to me and the crease in his forehead disappears.
He smiles at me. Crooked teeth ruin the illusion of the flawless golden king, but I think that just makes him look unfairly perfect.
I open my mouth to say—something, don't know what—but a red flower is blooming from his stomach now and I am distracted.
It's not a flower. It's not—
The king is dying.
He looks at me before he falls, like he's confused. I want to scream but my throat is frozen; I want to go to him but my feet are rooted to the floor.
He falls and he doesn't get up.
My feet uproot themselves.
I start walking again.
As fast as I can, this time, but it feels like moving through molasses, running through honey-thick syrup where every second is a hundred years. I walk, I run, and it makes no difference. Nothing changes. New faces appear, but they're insubstantial, disappearing too quickly for me to even make note of what they look like.
I'm looking for someone, anyway, and none of these people are right.
Nothing is right.
I keep walking.
Time shifts around me. The dragons are gone, I think, and the witches too, but mourning bleeds into a blur along with everything else. Everything but the path. If I keep following the path, I'll come home eventually. (Where was home again?)
I keep walking.
Nothing is familiar anymore. I guess I haven't been paying enough attention to keep up. I think maybe I'd still feel out of place even if I had. I'm starting to forget everything I used to remember—names and faces, eyes green and brown but never blue, I remember blue, I remember—
I'm so close I can taste it, the pages flipping, the story drawing to an end.
And then the world ends instead, and I think how fucking unfair it is that I'm not even going to get to see how the story finishes, because I'm dead now too. I'm fucking dead and I never even got to—I never—
I trudge and I stagger and still I move. Because this was not how the story was supposed to end.
There's still a path. Fuck it. It's broken and overgrown and I don't need it anymore.
I keep walking. So close, so damn close, please—
All at once, the sun. Thumbs pressing hard into my heart, forcing it to beat again. A miracle, maybe, or the last dregs of the old world's magic. I don't know and I don't care.
I run again. I run to him.
Maybe this isn't the right ending either. I have no idea. But I think I've been dead too long to care—dead long before something came out of the shadows and turned me into a corpse in the literal sense—and I know I feel alive again now.
Fuck the ending. I'll tear the pages out with my teeth if it means getting to keep this.
Crooked teeth flash at me, a wide smile I haven't seen in a long, long time.
I'm finally home.